If you’ve been paying attention, the primary function of a rumor is to make sense of something that’s already unclear. Rumors help explain a confusing element of the world. In the soda rumor I opened with, the tensions between groups of people are scary and confusing. “Why are bad things happening?”
This confusion opens the door to rumors, which people can hold onto in order to give them at least some idea about why the world is working in the way that it is.
- People Spread Rumors When There’s Uncertainty
It’s when we don’t already have a firm grasp on how or why things are happening in the world that rumors start to spread. If you can imagine being in middle school again, imagine what would happen if one day, out of the blue, one of your classmates stopped coming to school. There’s a ton of uncertainty there, so people would probably develop and spread rumors as a way to get a handle on what happened.
- People Spread Rumors When They Feel Anxiety
Oftentimes uncertainty breeds anxiety—we like to have a clear sense of the world, and we get anxious when we feel uncertainty—and anxiety on its own has been linked to rumor spreading. Some research has shown that more anxious people tend to be the ones who are more likely to spread rumors.
- People Spread Rumors When the Information is Important
As much as you might be dying to talk about the rumor you heard about the company you work for, I probably don’t care a ton. The reason is that it’s just not that relevant to me. I, on the other hand, would be itching to talk about some other rumor that’s more important to me. In fact, Allport and Postman’s “basic law of rumor” that they developed in 1947 was that spreading rumors depends on both the ambiguity of the situation and the importance of the rumor.
- People Spread Rumors When They Believe the Information
Let’s face it—if you hear a rumor that you think is completely ridiculous, you probably won’t find yourself on a mission to spread that information far and wide. For example, one study looked at the spread of rumors during a university strike. It was the rumors that were more believable that ended up spreading the most.
- People Spread Rumors When it Helps Their Self-Image
- Plenty of research has shown that people often want to feel good about themselves, but one way people can do that is through rumor spreading. There are a couple reasons this can happen. One is that spreading a rumor positions you as someone who is clued into what’s going on in the world. People might then come to you as the one who’s especially informed.
- People Spread Rumors When it Helps Their Social Status
This might sound like reason #5, but there’s a subtle difference. Reason #5 was that people feel better about themselves when they help spread rumors. There’s a little more to it, though, which is that people can use rumors to strengthen their social ties. Want to be accepted by a group? Pass along some rumors about their rival group